Field Trip to the Dump

It may not sound like the greatest field-trip destination, but the Mariposa County dump is a fascinating place to visit. People say things like “Americans throw away 1460 pounds of solid trash each year” (Annenberg Foundation) which is a big number but seeing the volume with your own eyes really makes that number something real. And it isn’t just the volume of garbage that is amazing, but the composition of the garbage. I was lucky enough to go on this field trip with the GreenTeam – a group of people in Yosemite working to establish environmentally sound practices within DNC.

While we were at the composting facility, a load of garbage from the NPS dumpsters was deposited in the composting facility. In this pile of trash, in addition to the many garbage bags of trash, we could easily see 2 sleeping bags, 2 tents, and a foam mattress, some looking like they were in pretty good shape. The staff told us that it would be easy for us to go camping with the things they find in the trash in a single day. We speculated that long-distance travelers are simply unburdening themselves of things that they purchase for their Yosemite camping trip, but no longer want to be encumbered with. My co-worker frowns and points out that any homeless shelter would have been happy for donations like that.

In spite of the many recycling bins located throughout Yosemite, we also found plenty of recyclables in the trash. They do the best they can to remove these items prior to composting, but are understaffed, and unfortunately, most of it goes to the landfill instead of the recycling center.
Plastic is everywhere. Composting seems to reduce the volume of the trash by as much as 40 – 50% (based on eye-balling the composting vault that was nearly finished composting), and even after the pre-sort, there is so much plastic remaining in the compost that it goes through a second filtration step and STILL has scraps of plastic, plastic spoons etc. mingled in with what you would think of as compost.

The compost isn’t clean enough to sell, but it is clean enough to be used to cover the landfill – they are required to cover all new garbage with at least 6-inches of material (or a tarp) at the end of the day. Using manure from the Yosemite stables, as well as this plastic-y compost mixed with dirt both reduces their cost in purchasing dirt, and also puts this “waste” material to good use reducing odor and deterring wildlife.

I’ve been proud about our move to biodegradable/compostable materials in the “disposable” items that we have in our F&B units, but visiting the composting facility really made me see how that fits into the trash cycle, and just how much better off we are replacing plastic utensils, cups, packaging etc. with their compostable counterparts.